Prosecutors say visa scheme had `perfect victims' in aliens

Fraud trial nears close

federal judge's verdict could take weeks

April 17, 2001|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

Federal prosecutors said yesterday that the two principals of a Herndon firm stole about $21 million by preying upon hundreds of vulnerable aliens, the "perfect victims," who desperately wanted to become U.S. residents.

In closing arguments of an unusual trial that stretched over nearly three weeks, the two prosecutors in the case said the defendants, James F. O'Connor and James A. Geisler, lied to their clients, lied to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and lied to the court.

"They lied from Day 1," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer.

"They had the perfect victims for their crime," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, adding that the aliens often didn't understand the language or U.S. law.

Geisler and O'Connor, who represented themselves with the assistance of two court-appointed attorneys, asked U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis 3rd to acquit them, contending that although their company, the Interbank Group, failed, they never broke the law.

"We made some disastrously bad decisions," said O'Connor, "but we had no intent to hurt our clients."

"I did not knowingly misrepresent anything," said Geisler, who said the government's actions had reduced their business "to veritable ashes."

Geisler and O'Connor have been charged with visa fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, wire fraud and income tax violations. Geisler also faces bankruptcy fraud charges.

According to the indictment, Interbank marketed a program under which foreign investors can get permanent U.S. residency status by investing at least $500,000 in an American business. Prosecutors charged O'Connor and Geisler with selling the program to foreigners by telling them they could qualify with only $100,000.

Ellis, who has presided over the nonjury trial, said it would likely be several weeks before he issues a decision.

As it has since it began late last month, the final full day of trial was marked by the unusual. A last-minute witness for the defense was a 78-year-old accountant whose company did the books for the Interbank Group for several years.

Fadhi Abouzied, the accountant, said he was under a doctor's care for memory problems but couldn't, despite repeated requests from Ellis, name his doctor.

Later, after he was ordered to return to the court with the name of his doctor, Ellis asked Abouzied, "What day is it today?"

"Monday or Tuesday," Abouzied said after a lengthy pause.

The witness said he was also unsure what the notation M.B.A. meant, though it was printed on his official letterhead.

O'Connor told Ellis he wanted to question his former accountant to prove that actions he took on his own tax returns and with Interbank's finances were made on the advice of professionals.

"To be honest with you," Abouzied said at one point, "I don't even know why I'm here."

After two bench conferences and more than a half-hour of attempted questioning in which Abouzied said he could not remember any details or read any of the documents presented to him, the judge sent him home with orders to return to court tomorrow with the name of his doctor.

In his presentation, Boente said the defendants deliberately designed their scheme to have the money from investors run through bank accounts in the Bahamas so the INS would be fooled into thinking that the required $500,000 had really been invested.

He said the loans that Interbank said made up a part of the $400,000 were in fact "worthless pieces of paper" that in many cases weren't even signed. Calling it a "scheme" and "a money circle," Boente said the Interbank arrangement looked like money laundering "because that's what it was."

"This case is about a disaster," said O'Connor, "a disaster for my clients, for my family and Mr. Geisler." Acknowledging that he made a mistake by using clients' funds that were supposed to be kept in escrow accounts, he said, "We made decisions trying to do what we thought was right."

O'Connor said that Interbank followed the same procedures as other firms marketing the investor visa program, but problems began when the INS changed the rules for the program.

Geisler said that despite the allegations, "There are no victims. There is no money missing. The INS destroyed the program."

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